Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

A light touch forged in darkness: Avigdor Arikha, 1929-2010

Avigdor Arikha, 1929-2010
Avigdor Arikha, Summer Day, Indoors, 1991.  Oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 25-1/2 inches.  Private Collection, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.
Avigdor Arikha, Summer Day, Indoors, 1991. Oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 25-1/2 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

The exquisite poise and quiet understatement of the work of Avigdor Arikha belies in style its passionate author, who died in Paris last week at 81.  His paintings and pastels, infused with light and light in touch, were executed from direct observation and alla prima – in a single session.  His character, on the other hand, was forged in darkness.

Arikha was the supreme marvel of Israeli art, despite having only ever lived in the promised land for five years, in his youth.  A survivor of Nazi labor camps and an arduous wartime trek to Palestine (his drawings, shown to a Red Cross delegation, secured his and his mother’s release—his father was later murdered), Arikha fought in Israel’s War of Independence and was given up for dead from injuries sustained.  His reward was his cherished dream: to study in Paris.
There he excelled in an abstract idiom which brought him early success.  But with characteristic obstinacy and conviction, he went against the grain and back to basics, drawing, painting, and etching still lifes, people who were close to him (including his friend and mentor Samuel Beckett in a series of penetrating portraits) and the book-lined Montparnasse atelier he made his home.  Later he bought property in Jerusalem, capturing the Judean hills in charcoal studies of economy and precision.
His style was unmistakable yet free of obvious mannerism, deriving its unique stamp from frankness of vision and honesty of touch.  He could capture what was specific and peculiar about such overlooked motifs as the sheen of plastic in a bag of produce as readily as the singular presence of his wife, American poet Anne Atik, his daughters, or such celebrated sitters as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Alec Douglas-Home or Catherine Deneuve.  Also a scholar and curator renowned for his insights into Poussin, Ingres and others, he was a feisty critic of conservation excesses and a champion of access to natural light in museums.  A rare light has gone out with Arikha though it is undiminished in his work.